Finding Kendrick Johnson


Nobody deserves to end up like this.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Gravitas) Jenifer Lewis (narrator), Jackie Johnson, Mitch Credle, Kenneth Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Austin, Barbara English, Dr. William R. Anderson, Michael Moore, Tyrone Brooks. Directed by Jason Pollock

 

\One of the basic tenets that holds our society together is the rule of law. The laws of the United States are particularly enlightened in many ways; nobody is theoretically supposed to be above the law. We have seen over the years that isn’t always the case.

Kendrick Johnson was a typical teenage boy living in Valdosta, Georgia. He liked sports, was close with his family who were devout Christians (all of the Johnson children have the initials “KJ” which stands for King Jesus, mother Jackie explains). He played video games, hung out with friends and was by all accounts a decent, nice guy.

On January 10, 2013, he didn’t return home from school. His mother, frantic, called her husband Kenneth – a truck driver, who was on the road at the time. He hurried back home, knowing that being out late without calling home was unlike his son. When he got home, he went straight to Lowndes High School, where he discovered that Kendrick had been found dead. His body was rolled up in a gym mat.

The coroner ruled that his death was an accident; that he had tried to reach down into the mat to get his shoe and had fallen into the hole made by the rolled up mat and asphyxiated, all while other kids were nearby.

But it didn’t make sense. For one thing, the dimensions of the mat were too small for Kendrick to just fall in. Jackie, who at first believed the Valdosta police’s explanation, began to get suspicious. She wanted a different forensic medical examination of her son’s body, so it was exhumed. Dr. William Anderson was hired to do the autopsy for the Johnson family. When he opened up the body, he discovered to his shock and horror that all the internal organs were gone; in their place were rolled up bits of newspaper. However, there was enough left that it was plain to Dr. Anderson that the boy had not died of positional asphyxia. There were also wounds on the body that indicated that he had been badly beaten before he died.

The Johnsons suspected a cover-up and launched a campaign to get justice for their son. At first, it seemed like their pleas were being heard; a federal investigation was launched. The case became national news. But abruptly, the investigator quit and the case was transferred to an office in Ohio, where it was quietly closed. But why? Why would anyone want to cover up the death of a high school kid?

The filmmakers try to give the crime larger context. We’re shown the history of crimes against the African-American population of the South, particularly in Valdosta, starting with the lynchings that took place locally as well as the Emmitt Till murder in Mississippi. The crimes are made relevant, showing footage of the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Kendrick Johnson, the filmmakers are saying, is part of a larger pattern. Would the crime of his murder have been covered up had he been white?

To the credit of the filmmakers, they uncover some damning evidence that the federal investigators had been made unaware of (one of them, a Washington DC homicide detective named Mitch Credle, was absolutely gobsmacked that a filmmaker had uncovered the evidence but a federal investigation couldn’t). Was Kendrick Johnson the victim of a modern-day lynching?

Well, I’m not so sure on that score. That he was murdered I think is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That there was a cover-up, absolutely for sure. Was the crime racially motivated? That is less clear. The filmmakers do point at a couple of likely suspects – fellow students at Lowndes whose father happened to be an FBI agent. But if the son of an FBI agent have been involved with the murder of a white boy, would the father still have covered it up? I think the answer is likely yes.

There are crime scene photos of Kendrick’s body as well as autopsy photos, along with pictures of Emmitt Till’s corpse and other victims of lynching, so this really isn’t for the squeamish. The film doesn’t give any warnings of the disturbing content, so do take this seriously – it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s ghastly, but I understand why it was done – the brutality of these crimes should not be overlooked.

I do feel for the Johnson family. Certainly they have been denied justice and I do hope that this film helps them achieve it. However, when you compare the death of Kendrick Johnson to the death of Emmitt Till, the comparison doesn’t hold up. It seems likely that Johnson’s death was a dispute with another student that got out of hand. Whether or not it was racially motivated….well, given that Valdosta doesn’t have the most savory reputation when it comes to race relations, it seems likely, but there’s this whole “reasonable doubt” thing. That is also a part of the rule of law.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story that engenders sympathy for the Johnson family.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly lurid.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing crime scene, historical and autopsy photographs.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The filmmakers spent four years investigating the case.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Smartest Kids in the World

Where She Lies


Peggy Phillips manages to keep a positive face despite a life filled with heartache.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Peggy Phillips, Zach Marion, Suzanne Smith, Marguerite Nocera, Doug Scott, Vondie Stinet, Susan Farrar, Doug Cox, Jody Brooks, Steve Lawson, Jewell Scott, Curtis Ottinger, Evelyn Burroughs, Trey Monroe, Tom Bokkin, Jimmy Phillips, Melanie Marion Oliveira. Directed by Zach Marion

 

We often are confronted in our lives with tragedy, injustice, or a combination thereof. It can shape our lives and alter our perception of who and what we are permanently. Some respond to it better than others.

Peggy Phillips was an ordinary 19-year-old girl living in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1962. While her parents were authoritarian and strict Baptists, Still, she was fairly happy but like most girls her age, she chafed a bit at her parents restrictive household, and then her naivete led to her being sexually assaulted by a married man (who told her she was separated) and to a pregnancy.

At that time, there was a whole lot of stigma attached with an unwed mother, a stigma visited both on the mother and the child. Despite the fact that Peggy was unwilling and in truth a victim of rape, her father was as cold as ice to her. This had to be her fault, somehow. There was no question that the baby would be given up for adoption, except for one thing – Peggy didn’t want to.

Peggy’s dad threatened to disown her and throw her out of the house; even Peggy’s obstetrician counseled her to give up the baby for adoption but Peggy was adamant. The stubborn girl was sent to live with her aunt and eventually, the big day came. Peggy was in a fog of anesthetic and remembers nothing about the delivery. She awoke the next morning, only to be told that the baby had died shortly after birth. Peggy was heartbroken but went on to live her life, but the relationship between her and her father was soured forever.

However, incredibly, her mother on her deathbed confessed to Peggy that the child hadn’t really died; her father had given the baby up for adoption, forging her signature on the paperwork. Now, Peggy went on a crusade to find her lost baby. At last, a woman stepped forward; Suzanne Smith, who had been adopted by neighbors of Peggy’s family. A lot of signs pointed to Smith’s story being true, but her testimony was unreliable to say the least; she was a chronic drug addict who was in and out of prison. Still, Peggy formed a bond with Suzanne and began to think of her as a daughter.

Peggy had a lawyer named Doug Cox on her side, and the grave where Peggy’s baby had supposedly been buried was exhumed. The remains of an infant were found. There were some things that didn’t add up though, but nevertheless Peggy was eager to have a DNA test done to prove once and for all the infant in the grave those 30 years were not hers. Unfortunately, Peggy didn’t have the funds to get a DNA test done so definitive proof remained elusive.

Years later, aspiring filmmaker Zach Marion ran across Peggy’s story while researching another potential subject for a documentary. He decided this would make the perfect subject for a feature and asked Peggy if it would be okay to do an interview. Peggy agreed and it led to a detective story as Zach set out to obtain the answers to the questions that had essentially defined the now septuagenarian Peggy her entire adult life.

Marion sets this up essentially like a detective story, but doesn’t succumb to the tropes of a true crime documentary – at least, not much. Peggy isn’t the most charismatic subject in the world, but then again it’s hard to blame her for being reserved; most of the people she trusted in the world had betrayed her about as completely as a human can betray another. She remains good-hearted and optimistic, although she seems to be less interested in finding facts than in having her hopes validated. It is a little troubling to think that is essentially how our political decisions are being made these days.

There are a lot of twists and turns here, not all of them expected. Generally, it is never a good idea for a documentary filmmaker to become part of the story, but Marion becomes inexorably linked to Peggy’s story and so the cinematic faux pas doesn’t sting quite as much. The story is compelling enough that you’ll want to sit through it and find out what happened. The big issue is that Peggy is a bit of a wet noodle as a subject, but with good reason. She’s been through a lot in her life and her situation is essentially a poster child to how women have been regarded for centuries. You will feel sympathy for her, but there is a feeling of resignation in her that may prevent you from thoroughly relating to her as you might ordinarily.

REASONS TO SEE: Keeps you guessing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Peggy hides her emotions so well that it is hard to get caught up in how sad the story really is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a mention of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peggy suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and generally had to walk with the aid of a cane towards the end of her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In Silico